Tuesday, 31 January 2012

bbc english #3: more or less

There are many ‘rules’ governing the ‘correct’ use of English that seem unnecessarily fussy and serve no useful purpose. The prohibition on splitting infinitives is a good example. In fact, this so-called ‘rule’ was the invention of nineteenth-century pedants, and there are no good grounds for its continued survival, especially now that it has been effectively torpedoed by the statement of the five-year mission of the U.S.S. Enterprise at the beginning of each episode of Star Trek:
…to boldly go where no man has gone before.
I always thought that this sounded rather contrived, but not on the grounds that the infinitive ‘to go’ was being wantonly split. I would have moved the adverb ‘boldly’ so that it preceded the adverbial clause that is the meat of the statement:
…to go boldly where no man has gone before.
Notice that there is no change in meaning, but there is a subtle change of emphasis, so which version you prefer is not a matter of correctness, merely a pointer to what you consider is important in the statement.

At first glance, the distinction between ‘less’ and ‘fewer’, that ‘less’ should be used for uncountable nouns and ‘fewer’ for countable nouns, would seem to fall into the same category. After all, you may offend a few pedants if you get it ‘wrong’, but the meaning is unaffected. If this is your assessment, then you may want to consider the following sentence, which I encountered on the BBC Sport website earlier this month:
Does the trend for less positive tests during competition reflect how sport is getting cleaner?
By using ‘less’ instead of ‘fewer’, the corporation’s sports editor, who committed this howler in a discussion on drug tests at the 2012 Olympic Games, ended up modifying ‘positive’ instead of ‘tests’. The problem is that ‘less’ can be used in other contexts, and the sentence is ambiguous because ‘less positive’ is automatically read as not quite as positive as previously thought. The ambiguity could have been avoided by following the rule:
Does the trend for fewer positive tests during competition reflect how sport is getting cleaner?
‘Fewer’ cannot modify an adjective, only the noun ‘tests’, so the intended meaning is clear. The moral, which BBC journalists seem to have forgotten, is that if you break a rule, you should be aware that you have done so and of the possible consequences for your message.

other posts in this series
BBC English.
Grand Slam.
Making an Impression.
Explaining Science.


  1. Really interesting. I have to admit that I wasn't sure what a split infinitive was until I read your example ('to boldly go'). I'd heard the rule (never split infinitives) -- now I know what that refers to, AND that I may have a choice in whether to follow it or not!

  2. Nice post about the prohibition on splitting infinitives.I agree with you i am waiting for your next post.


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